Q & A Interview with Teja – What Is Awakening or Enlightenment?
This is an excerpt from a 2015 interview of toawaken.org publisher and Living Liberation teacher Teja, conducted by radio host Gary Levin, to help listeners sort out some of the basic questions & answers about what awakening is, what it feels like to enter & live in that ‘state,’ and what they can do to enter that experience:
Gary Levin: First of all, thank you so much for your willingness to sit with me today and try to put cogent answers to these elusive questions about enlightenment. It’s a great service and a near-impossible task.
Teja: My pleasure. And yes, these are indeed elusive questions and answers, because we’re trying to grasp them with our minds, and minds can’t grasp this.The true Tao is not the Tao we can speak of. These are pre-cognitive experiences, that exist even before mind enters into it. Enlightenment can only be experienced. Whenever we try to ‘wrap our heads’ around what enlightenment is, or what it feels like to be enlightened, we will fall short. Remember, our minds and all they can think or understand make up only the tiniest fraction of full consciousness. Just try telling someone how it ‘feels’ to be ‘in love, or how to acquire that feeling!
GL: Exactly! You feel it, you be it, you’re in it, but you can’t describe it or transmit how it feels to someone who has not also felt it. It’s quickly clear you could never have experienced or conceptualized it with your mind. Still we try.
Teja: Of course! Minds and words were not made to get this stuff. It’s the wrong tools for the job. It’s like bringing a small cup to contain the entire ocean. Still, most people are identified with their minds. They think that’s who they are, and they think that’s their main tool, perhaps the only tool they have, to get this. So we hear about awakening or enlightenment, we’re intrigued, we try to grok this mentally, and that’s how we begin. And that’s fine; minds are fine and they are needed in the beginning, to know where to start, how to approach this. Eventually, we may see that this tiny vessel we call the mind can never to haul away the vast ocean, so we let go and sort of ‘give up,’ and throw ourselves into the ocean. And then we become it. Something in us realizes that the only vessel we can possibly bring to the ocean for this task is our whole selves, and that we must dive in and surrender our whole selves to the ocean to become the ocean. Once we give up, drop mind, and dive in, instantly we go, “Oh, I see.” We’re experiencing it…our minds are no longer part of the equation. We can go into that deeper a little later.
GL: Yes, let’s cover some of the basics first, so everyone is up to speed with the core understandings. I asked our listeners to write, text or call in with their most insistent questions, and I noticed that certain basic points and concerns kept coming up repeatedly, so I’ve distilled them into the most pressing and oft-repeated queries. The first one could be simply phrased: What is enlightenment or what does it mean to live as an Awakened person?
Teja: Yes, OK. The simplest answer would be, constantly experiencing your identity as everything, as the Underlying Reality behind everything, mind, body, individual person, manifest world, versus experiencing your identity as only a separate mind, body and ego. If we experience, constantly and with our entire being, that we are everything and the emptiness behind that everything, that we are the Pure Awareness or Spirit that is always there, beyond and containing all these ever-changing minds, bodies, planets, rocks, trees and all other living things, then we know we are fully Awake, we are enlightened. When we feel that we are just our individual bodies & minds, with all their constant self-talk, self-concern and self-protection, which is what fills all the waking hours of most people’s lives, at those moments, we are not living in awakeness or enlightenment…even if we have moments or hours where we ‘strongly suspect’ or know conceptually that we actually are the Pure Awareness behind all that. Knowing it mentally is wonderful, and it’s a great step, and until that’s our full-time experience, conceptualizing or ‘thinking’ that wisdom should not be confused with being Awake or Enlightened.
That’s the simplest answer. Directly experiencing, every moment, that You are That endless, unmanifested background behind everything that’s manifest, and you can say there is enlightenment present, that You are living as an Awakened soul.
Of course, it doesn’t matter whether you are an awakened, enlightened soul, or not. It’s not you, and you’re not superior or better off, because you ‘got enlightened.’
GL: That’s a very provocative statement, because it seems natural for people, especially spiritual seekers, to covet that final gold ring, that “reaching enlightenment,” and you are essentially saying it doesn’t matter.
Teja: That’s right, it doesn’t matter to Spirit or Pure Awareness whether you get enlightened or not. As the background containing everything, including all the so-called ‘good things’ and ‘bad things,’ all the enlightened and unenlightened beings, Pure Awareness is already perfect & complete. Nothing ‘matters’ to It, in the way our minds judge what matters and what doesn’t, including whether us seemingly-separate beings get enlightened or not. To the One, it’s all One; there are no separate beings to get enlightened. It’s all perfect & complete.
Now, it might matter to you, but then you must ask, what part of me does that matter to. My mind? My ego? Because my ego/mind thinks it will end my suffering or inflate my life’s significance? Well, if it’s our minds or egos that it matters to, then it really doesn’t matter, because minds & egos can’t get enlightened. Spirit or Awareness gets enlightened, actually already is enlightened. So if you’re coveting enlightenment to satisfy your body, mind or ego, you might as well stop all your spiritual practices for “reaching” that. It will never happen. Indeed, we must cease our identification with our minds and its desires, in order to have enlightenment dawn in us. So even though it may seem natural for a spiritual aspirant to look forward to eventual enlightenment, thinking enlightenment ‘matters,’ and coveting it, quickly becomes your biggest impediment to actually becoming enlightened.
GL Wow! That’s an amazing paradox, and I’m sure our listeners would like get even more clear about that, and how to approach their practices, given the truth of that. Let’s come back to that towards the end. For now, the second-most asked question, after what does it mean to be enlightened, is, how does it feel to be enlightened or awake?
Teja: How does it feel to be everything in the Universe, and nothing at all, at the same time? Sorry, that might be a bit poetic and cryptic, and probably doesn’t help most folks understand how it feels. Going back to what I said before, when you wake up, your perspective has changed, permanently. More accurately, your perspective is gone! Looking at things through the perspective of your mind & ego is way in the background, now. Now everything is seen through Spirit’s perspective. You still have a body, a mind and a personal identity – and that’s a good thing or we wouldn’t be able to function at this human level – but your perspective is, there’s my body, mind, personality and preferences, and here I am, the pure awareness ‘container’ of all those things. They are temporary, one might even say an illusion; I am permanent, awareness is permanent. So I can watch all those things running around, moving through space, doing what they do, and I can enter into them and use them, as I’m already doing while still experiencing a human life, but I’m aware, so completely, that I am the Awareness behind that, I no longer get caught up in the belief that I’m primarily a body/mind with its constant problems and impending death. And I see that I’m also the Awareness behind everything. And that’s my new perspective, the perspective of Pure Awareness and Pure Creation, so I always feel amazed, playful and at peace. Every experience is new, delightful and received as the next perfect experience I or we should be having – because there’s no mind to judge it, say it should be different or better, or compare it to past experiences. Even saying I’m always at peace isn’t quite right, because that word tends to infer the opposite, being unpeaceful, anxious, stressed, worried about something. It’s more like, in the awake perspective and experience, everything just is. No peace or non-peace about it; those are judgment words. It’s just an experience of looking out and seeing that everything is exactly as it is, so feeling peaceful, non-peaceful or having any judgment at all about it, never enters into it. In enlightenment, we are One with everything that is, literally the Creator of everything as it is, so we cease to argue with things being how they are. And so, we are always at peace.
It also feels like, even though I have a mind and a body here, there really isn’t any ‘I’ here. The feeling of ‘I-ness’ feels very flimsy, because I keep re-experiencing the awareness of being everything, pure awareness, of being all the I’s there was and ever will be. So even when I say to my wife, “I love you,” or “Let’s you & I go to a movie,” that common experience we know of an ‘I,’ this separate, concrete individual that’s talking, that I am and you’re not, feels rather blurry and meaningless now. It’s an ever oscillating between feeling one with everything, and then feeling I am Teja who has individual attributes and a life to attend to.
Once again, we come back to experience here. There’s simply no way to convey this experience, or non-experience, in words clear enough so that someone who hasn’t experienced it can say, “Oh, that’s what enlightenment feels like.” You gotta experience it for yourself. It’s also worth pointing out that enlightenment is not a static experience that feels like one thing all the time, it’s constantly moving, evolving, growing. That’s why Almaas labeled it ‘runaway realization.’
And, it feels different for everyone. Why wouldn’t it? It’s actually Spirit experiencing that ‘state’ of enlightenment, through us, and already, every one of us is different, right? Different bodies, different feelings, different expressions. So why wouldn’t it be that each of us experiences and expresses enlightenment just a little differently from the next person, and so on. You might see one person express their enlightenment as feeling super-energized and constantly moving or chanting God’s names, while another might exude constant peace and silence. Ramana Maharshi exhibited both of these qualities. He felt constantly immersed in the One, and he rarely spoke, teaching mostly through silent transmission. At the same time, he noted that his head was constantly moving an shaking back & forth with Divine energy, and he couldn’t stop it.
But know for certain, being in that awakened state doesn’t have to feel or look any particular way. As Adyashanti has said, the next fully enlightened person you come across may be a little old grandmother standing in line behind you at the grocery store, and she may say or do nothing to call attention to the fact that she’s enlightened, or act in whatever way we think an enlightened person should act; she might not even have a word for it. Why should she? If everything is already Spirit – and it is – than being One with Spirit is the most natural thing in the world, and many enlightened souls just treat it like there’s no other way to be. So we need to drop our judgments of how an enlightened person looks or acts, and drop all our ideas of what it ‘feels’ like. Virtually every person who has awakened has reported, “It’s nothing like I thought it would be. Nothing!”
Now, to reassure our listeners, entering into that state or having enlightenment dawn in you does not have to be any big deal, any huge kundalini explosion or floating off into cosmic ecstasy and visions, to the degree that you can’t function in this world, can’t get into your car, post-awakening, and drive down the freeway safely at 65 miles an hour without hitting other Jivas. There are all kinds of energy risings, purifications, ego-deaths and third-eye openings reported by people in whom enlightenment dawns, and some of it can sound rather daunting. But it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking or intense. It can be as quiet as walking down the street and…”Oh, I totally see it now, wow!” One beloved awakened teacher, Jean Klein, reported how he was simply walking down a road in India, looking at a flock of birds that had just taken flight across the afternoon sky. He was seeing them at first the way anyone might see them, as something seen with his eyes, taking place above & outside of his body. And then, all of the sudden, he was the the Universe, he was everything, and the sky and the birds flying across it were ‘inside’ of him, not outside. He was seeing everything with Spirit’s eye, not with limited body/mind eyes.
GL: And how did it happen for you? What did it feel like when you awakened?
Teja: I seem to have had the very quiet kind. During a solo retreat in the woods, after a periods of deep meditation and inquiry into the true nature of things, I felt extremely peaceful, still and One with everything. I looked at trees, people and other objects in nature, and couldn’t tell where I stopped and they began. It was sweet, because I had spent a lot of years and effort trying to be more present with each thing I came in contact with, and now, through no effort of my own, I didn’t have to focus on something or someone and try to get present with them, I was them, totally, and the empathy was achingly deep. I simply fell very deeply in love with everything in the Universe. I was the Universe, looking lovingly at My Creation, instead of this small part of the Universe, feeling separate, alone and burdened by all these issues I called ‘problems.’ The experience continued to grow, and a short time later, this knowing occurred in me that my search was over. It was irrefutable, I simply knew that I never needed to look for the goal or try to attain anything ever again. I was Here, Now. Almost immediately following that realization came a jolt, and ‘I’ disappeared. There was no more ‘me’ as a separate entity, a separate subject meeting the thoughts and objects of the world from ‘my’ own location or sense of individual perception. There was just this, everything, and I was no longer the perceiver of this, just another cog in it. At a certain point there was a re-inhabiting of my individual body and Teja identity, which is good, because the body needed food and shelter for the night, and I was also expected back home with my family in the coming week. But I was never the same after that. I could never be fooled that my thoughts, my judgments and my individual ‘I’ were real again. I knew that I wasn’t any of those things, indeed, wasn’t anything at all, and I was at rest.
The most important realization that came next, was that that was not the end, but only the beginning. Don’t be fooled. Enlightenment is the beginning of spiritual life, not it’s end or culmination. I had some golden nectars and powerful energies course through my spine, and I’ve definitely had, and continue to have, some strong purifications of my body & mind, some which felt like pretty big shake-ups or even illness, in my body. And overall, my opening seems to have been one of the quiet, less dramatic ones. It’s all Spirit waking up, anyway, not me. So however It expresses Itself is perfect, and I feel surrendered to that.
GL: You mentioned that experience of seeing the things of this world as just an illusion. I’ve gotten a few questions about clarifying that. Is this world real or not? If it’s just a temporary illusion, why does it feel so real to us? And if it’s just illusion, why is it here at all?
Teja: Yes, these are core existential questions that come up again & again because the human mind is trying to grasp & control its outcome, and straining to accomplish its self-protection job. By self-protection, here we mean the little self, the body/mind, because the True Self doesn’t need any protection. But the mind is actually part of the illusion, so it can’t understand that everything is an illusion. Naturally it says, “I’m not an illusion, this world is not an illusion, I’m real, this world is real, and what you’re saying is nonsense.” No mental sense…yes, of course. And because the mind is inside the illusion, part of the illusion, it cannot grasp what might be outside the illusion, in the same way that an actor playing a role on the movie screen cannot declare “I’m real” and then step off the screen to see what encompasses them, cannot understand the pure white canvas that was there even before there was ever a projection of ‘mind’ or ‘actor.’ Like Papaji said, “Everything the mind can think is already past,” but what we call Reality or Illusion already existed before there was mind. The mind came after and became part of that illusion, so it can never understand illusion truly is.
So if we say, this Universe and all beings in it are just fleeting illusions, don’t be concerned about that, or try to verify that with our minds. Instead, try this. Just position yourself, your awareness, just a few inches behind your eyes, mind & body and look at your whole self instead of through your eyes. Now notice what’s looking! In that place, there are no thoughts, judgments or resistances & survival fears, just Is-ness, pure Being. From there, without the mental deductions or conclusions, we can notice, can feel, can experience, that what’s really happening is nothing, no fixed location, looking at nothing, just a bunch of passing energy waves. What seemed so real & solid here is actually just empty movement, shifting waves that seem to take on solid form, but in reality are made up of mostly space & insubstantial energy patterns.
We can also experience this in Vipassana or Insight meditation, where we dispassionately watch all thoughts & sensations rise & fall until we experience that there’s no constant ‘I’ there experiencing them; that indeed, that sense of ‘I’ or ownership of these sensations is itself just another sensation. The experience of a continuous ‘I’ is illusory. There is no real ‘I’ or self. Of course, science has already concluded & verified all this.
If we can’t feel this, and, in spite of scientific verification, our minds still want to argue for their ‘realness,’ we can fall back to simple ‘dream’ analogy. This whole Universe and all the lives and things in it are simply a temporary ‘dream.’ Now, when you’re dreaming, you would swear that everything in that dream, the people, the events taking place, etc, are real. If you are dreaming of a car rushing towards you at high speed, you feel the fear and attempt to leap out of the way the same as you would in waking life. All your experiences and emotions feel so real while you are dreaming them. Then, in the morning, you wake up, and what parts of your dream you can actually remember, you know with certainty were just a dream, this fleeting projection of empty waves against the ‘screen’ of your mind, and you grant no significance to these phantom images that are now clearly unreal in the light of day.
To the awakened person, this waking life is just as much of an insubstantial dream as the dreams of sleep are to you. That’s why it’s called ‘waking up!’ When we’re truly awake, we can’t help but see that only One Thing is real, and that everything else is just a temporary illusion, a playful projection of that One onto the screen of Itself. In reality, nothing is real or permanent here. It’s all smoke & mirrors. It feels real to us, so real, because we are temporarily identifying ourselves as the actors playing out these roles – driving to work in our office scenes, making love in the sexy scenes, shooting a gun in the crime scenes – instead of identifying with our true, real, permanent Selves, the blank, neutral canvas upon which everything is being projected. We are that screen, and the undifferentiated light falling on it, before the film crosses the light’s path and shapes into specific images. Except that here, the screen is not an impermanent 45 x 80 feet surface that may be torn down in the future. It is the permanent Screen behind everything that exists and doesn’t exist, the Pure Is.
And if That’s the only Real thing, why is this massive illusion being projected on it at all? Once again, this is beyond the ken of the mind to understand, because mind is the illusion. Mind could no more experience what is and is not illusion, and what the purpose of the illusion is, than could water experience what dryness is like. So don’t try to figure out why all this is here with your mind. Many great teachers have said Spirit manifested all this so It could “know Itself” consciously, to play with itself, the Divine Lila. But that doesn’t really explain anything to the mind in a satisfying way. It just brings up more questions. “Well why would Spirit want to play with Itself, and why this particular trouble-filled manifestation, with so much pain as well as pleasurable parts?” Then there’s teachers who confirm you can only know why Spirit manifested all this when you become One with Spirit. I really love Ramana Maharshi’s very Zen-koan kind of answer. When asked by a student why this all arose, he answered “See if it arose. See if anything actually arose at all. Why start with the assumption that something definitely arose, how are you so sure?” Contemplate that!
GL: What a great answer from a revered teacher. Which brings us to another common question: Is a spiritual teacher or Guru necessary to attain enlightenment?
Teja: Well, yes…but that teacher might be you, or a tree, or an set of events that happen in your life. Who says the teacher must look like a saintly person with flowing hair in long robes, or someone with a holy sanskrit name from a renowned spiritual region like India or Tibet? Think about it. If everything is Spirit – which it is – and if Spirit is already perfect and fully complete or “enlightened” – which it is – and there’s nothing for the True You, as Spirit, to attain – also true – then every person & thing you come in contact with is your next best teacher or Guru. It’s always going to be perfect Spirit meeting perfect Spirit, showing you something, leading you onward, so why would you need one particular piece of Spirit – one human that you choose to call your Guru – to show you Spirit? When students found Sri Ramakrishna asleep with his feet pointing towards God’s ‘holy altar,’ they were appalled and begged him to switch his position. He said, “Spin me around,” so they did and his feet came to rest pointing in a different direction. He said, “Spin me again,” and they did, several times, each time with his feet pointing in a different direction. Then he asked, “Is there any direction my feet can point that is not towards God?” In truth, the Guru is Spirit, not merely human, but pure essence, because that person has already dropped his or her personal ego/mind and merged with the One in the awakened state. But so have you! There’s that part of you that’s pure Spirit, and has already merged with Itself, so you may or may not need another Master outside of yourself to guide you home. You may just need your own inner Guru.
Often we see students, chelas and disciples congregating around one whom it seems enlightenment has ‘happened’ to, because they are attracted to that person’s peace & wisdom that seems to place them beyond the suffering and chaos of this life, as if it’s ‘happened’ over ‘there’ and but not ‘here,’ where you are. We then see them always looking ‘over there’, to the Guru, hoping by learning or by pure association with them, that they’ll ‘get it’ too.
By now, most spiritual seekers know there’s been millions of aspirants who lived in ashrams and monasteries and spent decades devotedly following their particular guru, and still did not experience full enlightenment. This does not imply that their gurus were not themselves enlightened or good-enough teachers, nor does it imply that they made the wrong choice following an outer guru and should have remained self-taught. As we mentioned earlier, personal body/minds don’t get enlightened. Spirit gets enlightened through us. Awakening awakens through us. When Its ‘ready.’ There really is no time, it’s all happening simultaneously – another absolute the mind cannot grok because it cannot exist without time. But within the relative notion of ‘time’ and ‘readiness,’ Spirit had simply not yet chosen to wake up through those Jivas yet. It wasn’t their ‘time,’ Guru or no Guru. When Spirit is waking up through you, it may look like an enlightened Master is guiding you, and that’s why it’s happening, or it may look like you don’t have a teacher and you’re not even doing any spiritual practices, and still it’s happening. We’v all heard of people with no teacher and no prior spiritual path, like Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, and Yolande Duran-Serrano, who had spontaneous awakenings. So don’t worry too much about a teacher. Just keeping turning your attention towards Spirit and the True Nature of things, and if you’re one of the ones who would be best served by an outer Guru, the proper one will appear.